Even a healthy Georgia team performing optimally probably would have lost Saturday’s SEC Championship Game. Let’s face it, the Joe Burrow-led LSU team they faced was just that much better than them.
But, alas, poor play and too many missed opportunities by a banged-up Dawgs team let what could have been an honorable loss turn into an embarrassing blowout.
Between a half-dozen dropped passes (starting with the very first play of the game), quarterback Jake Fromm missing wide-open receivers, a negligible running game, and a previously superb defense getting shown up by a single-game Heisman Trophy highlights reel from Burrow, Georgia basically didn’t stand a chance against the Bayou Bengals.
Still, if a couple of dropped touchdown passes and two missed field goals had been made by Georgia, it might have been a much closer game. (Even that’s not definite, because LSU coach Ed Orgeron pretty much called off the Tigers in the fourth quarter, preferring to eat up clock with running plays rather than allow Burrow to pad the Tigers’ 27-point lead.)
The passing game again was lacking for the Dawgs, a situation exacerbated by the two leading receivers being unavailable in the first half (Lawrence Cager to injury, and George Pickens to suspension) and the next best two wideouts (Dominick Blaylock and Kearis Jackson) going down during the game with injuries. (At times during the game, Georgia’s sideline looked like a hospital ward as players were taken off the field.) What was left in Georgia’s receiving corps frankly wasn’t very good.
Also, as had been the case all season long, because the opponent didn’t have to worry much about Georgia’s air attack, they were able to load up the box against the Dawgs’ running game, which was itself a shadow of its former self, as an obviously not-100-percent D’Andre Swift got only 2 carries in the game. (Brian Herrien led Georgia runners with 24 yards on 8 carries as the Dawgs amassed only 61 yards net rushing for the game, a season low.)
Unlike some earlier games this season, head coach Kirby Smart’s devotion to the outmoded pro-set offensive philosophy — which has become the chief complaint among fans and sports columnists — wasn’t really the problem against LSU. As Smart noted after the game, the Dawgs “didn’t come out with a mentality of running the ball down your throat today.”
No, Georgia came out throwing. They just didn’t do a very good job of it. Part of that was due to several dropped passes that should have been caught, including the first throw on the first play of the game to Tyler Simmons. However, another big part of Georgia’s offensive futility was the previously reliable Fromm underthrowing or overthrowing wide-open receivers in his fifth straight sub-par performance.
What’s been wrong with Fromm? Why has a QB who’s shown in the past that he can make pin-point throws been so off-target the latter half of this season? Maybe it’s poor coaching (with several former players noting his shaky fundamentals of late). Or, perhaps it’s a lack of confidence in his receiving corps, depleted after last season and hurt by injuries this year.
Smart seemed to opt for putting the onus on the lack of talent at receiver, and personally took the blame, saying, “The first two years, Jake’s numbers were better, so the indicator of that was four wide receivers were on our sideline that were drafted that are playing in the NFL. And the loss of those wideouts, the vertical threat, has probably hurt our team. That’s my responsibility, right, to replace them. That’s my responsibility to replace them in recruiting, and we probably haven’t done a good enough job of that.”
For the day, Fromm completed just 20 of 42 passes for 225 yards, one TD and 2 interceptions, as Georgia had 286 yards of total offense, while Burrow made 28 of 38 passes for 349 yards, 4 TDs and no picks. Georgia converted just 3 of its 13 third-down plays while the Tigers made 9 of 16. If you want a silver lining, Georgia converted all three of its fourth-down tries to set an SEC Championship Game record.
On the other side of the ball, coming into the game Georgia ranked second nationally in scoring defense, allowing just 10.4 points per game, and second nationally in rushing defense (71 yards per game). The thought was that the Dawgs’ D would be the best yet faced by a Tigers team that came in ranked second nationally in scoring offense (48.7 points per game). And, sure enough, Georgia did hold LSU to just 17 points in the first half, and, for much of the game, the Tigers’ running attack mainly consisted of QB runs by Burrow.
But, the one knock on the Georgia defense as they approached the LSU game was that they really had only faced two decent quarterbacks this season, feasting mostly on backups and inexperienced starters. They had not come up against anything like Burrow, who more than lived up to his hype.
The third-quarter play where the Tigers QB twice escaped the arms of Georgia’s Travon Walker, scrambled until he could find an open receiver, and connected on a 71-yard pass, was the quintessential “Heisman moment.”
As Smart put it after the game, “You learn in coaching that good players make big-time plays, and that was an incredible play by Joe Burrow.”
But Georgia’s attempt to mix up its defensive schemes backfired on a number of early plays in the game when the Dawgs, trying to replicate what Auburn did against LSU, rushed only three and put seven men into coverage. However, that ended up allowing Burrow to wait patiently in the pocket to find an open receiver — one time for an amazing 8.7 seconds!
And, at times, the Tigers’ up-tempo attack caught a confused Georgia defense trying in vain to substitute personnel.
The Dawgs occasionally did stymie the Tigers’ offense, but weren’t able to capitalize. Following LSU’s first of three 3-and-outs for the day, Georgia couldn’t get any momentum, as Fromm was sacked and injured on a safety blitz.
When Fromm, ankle heavily taped, returned to the game on Georgia’s next series, it looked like he was about to work his old 2-minute-drill magic, only to have LSU’s Derek Stingley Jr. grab the first of his two interceptions on the day — both cases where Fromm locked in on a receiver who was closely covered by Stingley.
There followed, however, the defensive high point of the day for the Dawgs, as they forced three straight Burrow incompletions deep in Georgia territory, and the Tigers missed 48-yard line field goal, keeping the score a respectable 17-3 at halftime.
The Georgia defense continued to play stout early in the second half, as LSU opened with a 16-play, 77-yard drive that took nearly 7 minutes off the clock, but resulted only in a field goal.
Then came a Georgia drive in which Fromm converted on fourth down with a pass to the previously suspended Pickens (who returned in the second half to have a team-best 4 catches for 54 yards and one TD). It all went for naught, however, after Matt Landers (one of Georgia’s most inconsistent receivers) dropped a pass in the end zone and Rodrigo Blankenship missed a field goal attempt, his second errant try of the night. (Blankenship also had a kickoff go out of bounds. As former mentor Kevin Butler said later, “Rod didn’t have a good game.”)
There immediately followed Burrow’s 71-yard masterpiece, which set up an LSU score to put the Tigers up by 27-3. And, then, on Georgia’s first play of its next series, Stingley got his second pick of a poor Fromm pass, and, shortly, the Bengals were up 34-3 and the game was, for all intents and purposes, over, with many Georgia fans (who had made up about 70 percent of the crowd) leaving Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Georgia added a late touchdown in the fourth quarter, LSU tacked on another field goal, and that was it for the scoring.
So, yes, it was a disappointing night for Bulldogs players and fans. Like I said earlier, LSU obviously was the more talented team, and Georgia would have been hard-pressed to beat the Tigers even if the Dawgs had been healthy and playing at a peak level of performance.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case.
A year ago, the late loss to Alabama in the SEC title game left Bulldog Nation angry and frustrated over a game that Georgia should have won. This year, the feeling seems more akin to sad resignation amid the realization that the Dawgs haven’t yet become the elite program they aspire to be.
Let me hear from you!
Well leave the discussion of what changes, if any, Georgia needs to make in order to compete at an elite level until next week, when I’ll dip into the Junkyard Mail. So, please share your views on the Dawgs getting blown out in the SEC Championship game, Smart’s “offensive philosophy,” and the 2019 season in general by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org.